US shouldn’t exit Afghanistan in haste

G Parthasarathy | Updated on August 09, 2019

Phased withdrawal of troops will give the Afghan army and ethnic militia time to be well-armed and trained to face the Taliban

It now appears evident that President Donald Trump is determined to sign a virtual surrender document with the Afghan Taliban. This would permit him to ensure that there is no American combat military presence in Afghanistan, when Americans go to polls in Presidential Elections scheduled for November 3, 2020. Trump’s electoral support, drawn predominantly from a White Caucasian base, would clearly like all their “boys” back home, to celebrate Christmas next year, with the withdrawal being completed well before the Presidential elections.

Recently released figures show that American casualties in Afghanistan from 2003 to October 2018 were 2,372 army personnel killed and 20,320 wounded in action. An estimated 110,000 Afghan soldiers and civilians paid with their lives during this conflict. But, is this example of Americans entering conflicts and leaving the conflict zone without a decisive outcome, something new? The answer is in the negative.

Throwback to Vietnam

Such actions are not an exception, but recurrent. The long drawn out Vietnam Conflict (1964-1974), ended with an ignominious American withdrawal from South Vietnam. The then US Ambassador, Graham Martin, was evacuated by helicopter from Saigon, after North Vietnamese forces entered the South Vietnamese capital. The casualties in this conflict were massive, with an estimated 1.8 million Vietnamese losing their lives in North and South Vietnam. US casualties were 31,952 killed and 200,000 wounded, in the brutal war.

Following the American withdrawal, Vietnam was united under Communist Party rule, which continues. But, Vietnam did not become, as the US feared, a Communist Party ruled, Soviet/Chinese, satellite. Vietnam is still a “Communist” Party ruled State, but is Marxist, only in name.

It has a close strategic relationship with the US today, aimed at containing Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. This, after the Vietnamese gave the Chinese a bloody nose in a conflict in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping promised to teach Vietnam a “lesson” and invaded Vietnam.

The Iraq conflict

One looks back at the Iraq conflict with similar sentiments. President Saddam Hussein was backed by the US during the Iran-Iraq war. The US, thereafter, forced Iraq to withdraw after it invaded Kuwait, in the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. While the Iraqis reportedly lost an estimated 100,000 soldiers killed, US casualties were 383 killed in this conflict.

The Second Gulf War commencing in 2003, based on false American allegations that Saddam Hussein was producing nuclear weapons, resulted in around 110,000 Iraqi deaths. American participation in conflicts abroad has seldom produced the desired results.

Much has been written about President Trump’s atrocious assertion during the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan that Modi asked him to mediate on the Kashmir issue. This is not surprising. The Washington Post revealed last month that Trump had made 10,796 false or misleading statements and claims since he assumed office in 2017.

New Delhi has, therefore, been restrained and dignified in responding to Trump’s falsehoods, recognising that Trump has similarly offended countries across the world, ranging from neighbours Canada and Mexico, to European allies like France, Germany and Japan.

Interestingly, the only “leader” that Trump appears to admire is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who is not exactly a great champion of liberal, democratic values.

It is too early to jump to conclusions about how realistic Trump’s belief is, that he can persuade Imran Khan and, more importantly General Bajwa to facilitate a smooth withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Trump has bent backwards to please the Taliban and snub the elected Government of President Ashraf Ghani, with Presidential elections in Afghanistan scheduled for September this year.

The Afghan army is, meanwhile, suffering huge casualties in recent Taliban attacks. Pakistan has moved deftly to persuade countries like China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Qatar to follow the American example, of placing the Taliban and the Ghani Government, virtually on the same pedestal. But, Ghani has little prospect now of seriously influencing American policies.

The Taliban should not be regarded as omnipotent. It is an exclusively Pashtun organisation. Pashtuns constitute an estimated 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s population. The Taliban are strong willed and tenacious, but survive predominantly with Pakistan’s patronage and support.

Moreover, large sections of Pakistani Pashtuns, especially in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, are affiliated to groups like the Tehriq-e-Taliban and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, comprising Pashtuns with nationalistic inclinations, with scant regard or respect, for the Durand Line, as an international border.

These Pashtuns, on both sides of the disputed Durand Line, will not take kindly to coercive Pakistani military actions against their brethren. With the exit of American troops, many Afghan Pashtuns are not likely to be responsive to Pakistan Army demands to end their backing of their Pakistani Pashtun brethren, living across the disputed border.

India’s Afghan connect

Over the past two decades, India has won substantial goodwill across the ethnic divide in Afghanistan, by adopting a low-key and non-interfering approach, to developments within Afghanistan. The Taliban have never had a comfortable relationship with Afghanistan’s minority communities like the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Shia Hazaras.

Pashtun leaders like former President Hamid Karzai and Tajik leaders like Governor of the Balkh Province Atta Mohammad Noor and former Afghan Intelligence Chief Amrollah Saleh, regard India as a trusted friend. India’s economic and educational assistance to Afghanistan have won it widespread regard. It would, however, also be prudent to keep channels of communication with the Taliban open.

Much is now dependent on how Trump plays out his withdrawal schedule. There are pressures he faces from the State Department and the Military, to avoid a precipitous withdrawal and retain a residual presence in Afghanistan. If Trump decides to fully pull out before the next US Presidential elections, scheduled for November 3, 2020, the Americans could well be forced to leave Afghanistan ignominiously, like when they fled from Saigon.

If, however, they phase out withdrawal and give time for the Afghan National Army (ANA) and ethnic militias to be armed and trained, they would have created a credible force, enjoying local support, to face the Taliban. Finally, if Southern Afghanistan is destabilised, Pakistan’s own stability will face challenges from across the Durand Line.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on August 09, 2019

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